These Spots Are Restoring Corn to Its Place of Honor in the Mexican Diet
They’re also hoping to make it worthwhile for Mexican farmers to grow historic strains
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By Lesley Téllez
For at least the last 50 years in Mexico City, if you wanted fresh corn tortillas or corn dough, or masa, you went to one place: the neighborhood tortillería.
Those tortillerías all sold, and sell, a nearly identical product — a flat, round disc made from white corn. But if consumers were wondering where the corn came from — Mexico? The United States? Elsewhere? — it would be difficult to trace.
There is little transparency about tortillas in Mexico, and many tortillerías rely on nixtamalized corn flour (when corn is soaked, cooked in an alkaline solution, washed, then hulled) such as Maseca or Minsa to make their tortillas. A cheaper way to make masa, it sacrifices the tortilla’s flavor and elastic texture.
Though more than 60 strains of corn in different colors and shapes exist across Mexico, where corn was first domesticated more than 2,000 years ago, most Mexico City residents were not eating this corn, except on visits to the rural countryside. Farmers didn’t grow these varieties on a wide scale because demand was almost nonexistent.
In 2015, however, the lack of access to good-quality tortillas in the city rankled Santiago Muñoz, then a 23-year-old chef at Fonda Mayora, a restaurant in Condesa.
“The majority of Mexicans think we’re eating a good tortilla, but in reality, people are giving us whatever they can,” said Muñoz, now 27. “Forty percent of the corn we consume in Mexico is corn from the United States, which is GMO corn.”
In November 2017, with two other partners, Muñoz opened Maizajo, a small tortillería in Roma that used only native corn. His business is now booming, and it’s not the only one. In the past two years, tortillerías and other eateries focusing on native or landrace corn have blossomed in upper-class neighborhoods of Mexico City. At each place, the corn is treated and ground with volcanic stone on-site, giving the food a deeper, richer flavor than items made with nixtamalized corn flour.
Beyond making good food, the owners said the idea is to incentivize Mexican farmers to grow historic strains that are otherwise tough to profit from. There’s a deeper purpose behind the new tortillerías and restaurants, too — to restore corn, tortillas and other masa-based foods to their place of honor in the Mexican diet.
Here are five places to visit in Mexico City that are using masa made from native Mexican corn.
The first to lead the heirloom-corn wave in Mexico City, Maizajo has perhaps the biggest production of all, processing more than 20 tons of corn so far this year. (In late 2017, the company moved from its small Roma facility to a warehouse in Azcapotzalco.) Maizajo makes tortillas, chips, tostadas, and pinole (a corn-based drink), and manufactures its own brand of nixtamalized corn flour. It also supplies about 70 restaurants in Mexico City, including Quintonil and Nicos, and offers training sessions for cooks. Maizajo sources its corn directly from farmers in Querétaro, Puebla, and Tlaxcala, but Muñoz said one day he’d love to eventually use corn solely from Mexico City. “I’ve been doing this two and a half years, and every day we learn more about how masa behaves, how to make it last longer,” he said. “We’re really trying to find the best way to obtain the best tortilla possible.”
Rigel Sotelo, a former chef, stumbled into the tortilla-making business in 2015 while researching a mezcal-and-tortilla pairing event for his restaurant. He hoped to use different tortilla varieties, and then he realized that he only had access to one. “I was floored,” said Sotelo, who studied to be a physicist. “I could get hundreds of varieties of tea, chocolate, beer. But not tortillas, even being that we are in Mexico.” Cal y Maiz opened in 2016 near the Mercado de la Merced and moved to a bigger space in the Mixcoac neighborhood last year. Cal y Maíz sources its corn mostly from small farms in Tlaxcala, and the bulk of its business comes from selling tortillas to restaurants and hotels. In the long run, Sotelo said, he hopes Cal y Maíz is doing its part to save Mexican corn from extinction. Native corn strains, unlike GMO varieties, are already naturally adapting to climate change, he said, and “that’s the way we’re going to have corn for all of humanity.”
Passion for rural Mexican cuisine and traditions are at the heart of this small restaurant in Roma, which opened in April 2018 and doesn’t have a menu or a sign. Everything is prepared in an open kitchen, and plates can include anything from mole and tacos to memelas and tamales. Corn is the true star — on a recent visit, the friendly, blue-haired chef dropped off a corn masa cookie topped with cheese crumbles, then a sublime tortilla topped with cheese, crispy huauzontle, and just-made molcajete salsa. Co-owner Jesús Tornés said he was inspired to recreate the feeling of eating in the village where he grew up, Ayutla de los Libres in Guerrero. Tornés said the Expendio de Maíz staff can trace the provenance of nearly every ingredient they use, not just the corn. “It’s a place that’s not looking to generate a brand, or a label,” Tornés explained. “We’re part of a space where we’re sharing rural cuisine, and where every cook who works with us shares part of their gastronomic heritage.”
Regina Velasco worked in urban development before launching Tamales Madre, a tiny café in the Juárez neighborhood that specializes in tamales made from native corn. The shop, which fits 10 to 12 people, offers seven types of tamales daily, plus an array of sides and drinks, each made from native Mexican corn from Oaxaca, Tlaxcala, and the State of Mexico. Velasco said the shop has drawn some foreigners, but also plenty of Mexicans who aren’t aware of how different and regional tamales can be. “It’s incredible because it’s the oldest Mexican food there is, and people don’t know about it,” Velasco said. “And if you don’t know about it, you don’t fall in love with it.”
Spearheaded by Enrique Olvera, Molino El Pujol opened in 2018 in Condesa. More of a to-go spot than a place to stay awhile (there are around six seats inside), the place boasts a small but powerful menu of seasonally driven, corn-based items, all made from landrace corn sourced primarily in Oaxaca. “I want to promote and preserve the native landrace in Mexico,” said Olvera. “Most of the tortillerias in the city are selling tortillas base on processed masa coming from transgenic plantations and sometimes not even Mexican. It is our way to encourage the producers to keep on with the good agricultural practices through fair trade.”
On a recent visit, the standout was a huitlacoche (corn smut) tamal with red salsa, something rarely seen in Mexico City, studded with plump, perfectly cooked kernels. Besides tamales, the place also sells tacos, quesadillas, clay pot-cooked beans, elotes, and esquites, which you can order with the same chicatana ant mayonnaise that’s served at Olvera’s higher-end Pujol restaurant in Polanco. Besides serving the public, the mill makes masa for Pujol, and supplies masa, tortillas, and tostadas to Olvera’s more casual Eno cafés and other restaurants.
Lesley Téllez is the author of “Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets & Fondas,” and owner/founder of Eat Mexico Culinary Tours. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.